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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Mar 3, 2021



                                  ANDRA DAY as BILLIE HOLIDAY
                                  ANDRA LOOKALIKE LOCAL COMEDIAN DIVINE AUCINA

LEGENDARY JAZZ SINGER BILLIE HOLIDAY’s life has been filmed before in 1972 in ‘The Lady Sings the Blues’, with Diana Ross getting an Oscar best actress nomination. 

Now, we have a new biopic with singer Andra Day in her breakout acting role in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and she just won the Golden Globe best drama actress award for her title role performance.

The new movie is not a mere remake of the one made nearly 50 years ago. 

This version, made by Lee Daniels who also directed such acclaimed black films as “Precious” and “The Butler”, portrays Billie as a pioneering civil rights activist whose haunting song, “Strange Fruit”, is about the lynchings of black people and serves as an eye-opener about the injustice and racial oppression that blacks experience in the South. 

Racist white politicians get scared that it’s politicalizing listeners and order her to stop singing it in her shows. When she won’t comply, they use her drug addiction to persecute her and get rid of her. 

They harrass her, using a federal agent to gain her confidence, then arrest her and sentence her to prison instead of just sending her to a rehab facility. 

This was not shown in the first movie which was more fictionalized and made it more like the usual story of a famous performer who falls and hits rock bottom, rescued by loved ones, then makes a resounding comeback with a concert in the prestigious Carnegie Hall. 

The role is really a demanding one and Andra Day tries to approximate the gravelly voice of Billie to somehow sing like her in her popular songs like "All of Me" and "God Bless the Children". 

She makes it not just an impersonation but some sort of an endearing homage to Billie. 

But she doesn’t in anyway look like Billie, who’s definitely much better looking, as you can see in her past performances on youtube. Diana Ross is also lovelier on screen. 

When we first lay eyes on Andra on screen, we keep on thinking we know someone who looks like her and it eventually hits us (no offense meant): she looks like local comedian Divine Aucina. 

We just have no inkling if Divine sings as divinely as Andra, who also totally succeeds in conveying the spunk and vulnerability of the gifted but sadly tragic character that she is playing. 

Still, Andra’s touching portrayal, that aims to give more insight into the person and the artist, does not fully succeed in redeeming the poorly structured screenplay from being a mediocre work. 

Both film versions make use of many songs associated with Billie and in both films, the songs feel like they somehow slow down the movie quite a bit. Both movies also run for more than two hours as some scenes are repetitive. 

This new version truly feels longer than necessary.  But there are justified stylized scenes showing Billie as a child in a whorehouse where her mom works as a prostitute. 

There’s another one where she witnesses the lynching of a mother whose orphaned kids are crying pitifully. 

This explains why she’s so heartbreakingly effective in imparting the grim protest lyrics of “Strange Fruit” in her singing. 

But Andra shines not only in her songs but also in the scenes toward the end as her health deteriorates, with her looks and soul crushed by years of heroine abuse, the cruel men who took advantage of her, battered her physically and emotionally through the years. 

Also by the law enforcers who obsessively harassed and relentlessly tormented her even on her death bed, but she gets the last laugh. Billie Holiday passed in 1959 at the age of only 44.

Andra gives a truly star-turning performance as Billie but she gets uniformly adequate support from both the black and white cast, specially Trevante Rhodes (the lead actor in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”) as Jimmy Fletcher, a black federal narcotics agent sent to apprehend Billie but eventually falls in love with her and protects her.  

They have a graphic nude bedscene that leaves little to the imagination.

The Jimmy character is not in the first film. Instead, the love interest of Diana Ross there is Billy Dee Williams as Louis McKay, who’s also in the new film but portrayed as a villainous parasitic leech who beats her up.

The first movie reaches its climax at the hit Carnegie Hall concert, which is now staged in the new movie somewhere in the middle. 

The 40s and 50s period production design, costumes and make up work are all done with outstanding and close observation to detail, but still, it's Andra's bravura performance that holds it all up together.